The developed world is bearing witness to a 21st century miracle – the possibility of living well to the age of 100 and beyond. Three out of four Americans indicate that they want to live to 100 if they can do so in good health. Compelling scientific evidence indicates that living long and living well is most realistic for those who are socially engaged, adopt healthy living behaviors and are able to build financial security.
THE SIGHTLINES PROJECT investigates how well Americans are doing in each of these three areas that are critical to wellbeing as people age: financial security, healthy living and social engagement. The findings are based on analyses of eight nationally representative, high quality, multi-year studies involving more than 1.2 million Americans over two decades. We look at how many Americans in each of six age groups are doing well in each area, rather than how well the “average” American is doing. These results are intended to stir national debate, guide policy development, stimulate entrepreneurial innovation, and encourage personal choices that enhance independent, 100-year lives.
Healthy Living, defined as avoiding risky behaviors (smoking, excessive drinking, drug use, etc.) and making healthy choices day to day (diet, exercise, etc.), is known to be beneficial for long and healthy lives. Americans have made substantial progress in several areas, while other problems remain or have actually worsened. Smoking – the top preventable cause of morbidity and early mortality – is declining in every age group. For the first time in decades, more Americans are exercising regularly. More than half of Millennials (ages 25 to 34) are getting the recommended amount of exercise. Yet, sitting, which has emerged as an independent risk factor for health, is steeply increasing. Finally, problems with diet and sleep are widespread and show no signs of abating.
Financial security across the life span presents a growing challenge for longer lives. Financial security is less likely for Americans in 2014 compared to 2000, particularly among the least educated, who are more likely to live at or near the poverty level, lack emergency resources, and are less likely to have investments that contribute to their financial futures. Millennials (ages 25 to 34) are facing ever greater uphill struggles. Those who went to college are more likely to carry debt. Moreover, the average debt in this group is five times higher than 25- to 34-year-olds carried just 15 years ago. Fewer Americans (two out of three) are opening retirement accounts before age 55. Among those ineligible for employer-based plans, such as independent contractors, for example, only one in three has a retirement plan.
Social engagement, central to long and healthy lives, includes both meaningful relationships and participation in communities. Social engagement is declining according to many traditional indicators. It is too soon to tell whether new forms of technology-mediated social engagement – SMS, chat, video telephony, posting and tweeting – are providing social benefits and how they may complement face-to-face engagement. Interactions with neighbors – whose proximity could be especially helpful in times of stress or emergencies – are becoming less common. Compared to 55- to 64-year-olds of 20 years ago, members of the Baby Boom generation are less likely to be married, have weaker ties to family, friends, and neighbors, and are less likely to engage in religious or community activities. Longer lives mean that individuals are less likely to lose a life partner. Among Americans over 75, 53 percent are married, up from 42 percent in 2003.
There are signs of progress and reasons to be concerned about the ways that Americans are prepared for longer lives. Effective actions to address these issues via policies, awareness and innovation can improve individual and national wellbeing as we enable and prepare for living well and living long in 21st century America. We look forward to engaging the American public, employers, industry leaders, and policy makers in essential discussions aimed at finding solutions to problems and ultimately building a culture that supports long life.